In 1867, Canada instituted a policy of Aboriginal assimilation designed to transform communities from “savage” to “civilized”. Canadian law forced Aboriginal parents under threat of prosecution to send their children to the schools. The residential schools prohibited the use of Aboriginal languages, as well as the observance of their traditions, teachings, practices and customs. Children did not see their family members for months and even years at a time.
Many thousands of Aboriginal children were taken from their families and enrolled in the residential school system during its existence. While the majority of these children were status Indians, attendance also included many Inuit, Métis and non-status Indians. Regardless of the precise number of people involved, Aboriginal people across the country have paid a high price, both individually and collectively for the government’s misguided experiment in cultural assimilation (Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2003).
From the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, residential school was the norm for Aboriginal people. They were operated by religious orders in the earlier years and then moved to total governmental control in later years.
Abuses that occurred in schools are numerous, including physical abuse, neglect, torture, and sexual abuse at the hands of the staff. Despite the fact that abuses were directed toward specific individuals, they were part of a larger project to suppress Aboriginal culture and identity in its entirety. Aboriginal communities continue to feel the impact of what some call attempted “cultural genocide”.
The impacts of the residential school experience are intergenerational – passed on from generation to generation. Parents who were forced to send their children to the schools had to deal with the devastating effects of separation and total lack of input in the care and welfare of their children. Many of the children suffered abuse atrocities from the staff that were compounded by a curriculum that stripped them of their native languages and culture. This caused additional feelings of alienation, shame and anger that were passed down to their children and grandchildren.
The effects of trauma tend to ripple outward from those affected by trauma to those who surround them, and among residential school survivors, the consequences of emotional, physical and sexual abuse continue to be felt in each subsequent generation. Deep, traumatic wounds exist in the lives of many Aboriginal people who were taught to be ashamed just because they were Aboriginal.
What has also been a significant factor in the healing process of this trauma is that because of colonization the Elders and Healers of the communities, who would have played a vital role in the healing process, were not replaced or were undermined by the missionaries. So what would have provided significant assistance to those who experienced the trauma of the residential schools did not have access to these resources. “Each generation of returning children had fewer and fewer resources upon which to draw” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2012).
A significant factor to consider is how the attachment relationship between children, their parents, their natural community and cultural supports were violated. The experience of being taken away from their care givers would have been traumatic and had a significant impact on the children’s development. Attachment to a responsive, nurturing, consistent caregiver is essential for healthy growth and development. Many children of the Residential School system did not have this experience after they were taken from their families and subsequently struggle today because of the trauma of being taken away from attachment figures.
The impact of these disrupted attachments is felt at individual, family and community levels:
Because the impacts of residential schools are intergenerational, many Aboriginal people were born into families and communities that had been struggling with the effects of trauma for many years. The impact of intergenerational trauma is reinforced by racist attitudes that continue to permeate Canadian society.
In 2008 the Federal government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look at the impact and legacy of the residential school system on the Indigenous people’s of Canada. In 2015 the Commission published their report. The Executive Summary can be found here.
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